The latest numbers I have seen say 80 percent of the U.S. furniture sales are for pieces that say Made in China. I have also seen more and more cabinets bearing the same words. However, I think our cabinet industry is hearing the footsteps close behind them. So, rather than discuss some of the wood technology aspects of cabinet and furniture manufacturing, I thought it might be helpful if I shared, and if we considered, some ideas on how we can compete with the challenge of cabinets from abroad.
Let's consider what the ultimate consumer wants in a cabinet and which of these "wants" they are willing to pay for.
Does it make any difference if the cabinet is "Made in America?" My feeling is that few people consider "Made in America" as indicative of any benefits. We have gotten used to seeing cars and electronics coming from outside the U.S. and working very well.
Although a case could be argued that keeping the money in our home economy is a very good idea, I do not believe this concept is likely to influence the behavior of too many people. Nevertheless, we probably should use this concept, or at least be prepared to use this concept if the climate begins to change.
Does it make any difference to the consumer if our cabinets are made with American woods? American hardwoods are from forests that are healthy and continue to show an increase in saw log inventory. We do not rape the landscape, as any harvested hardwood forest in the U.S. has, in the past, returned and will, in the future, return to a healthy forest, if commercial interests do not make it into a large parking lot or subdivision. Consumers do give lip service to this positive environmental process.
However, I suspect that most customers do not know we have had more hardwood in our forests every year since 1909. They do not know this message; neither do lawmakers.
Likewise, they do not know that harvesting of non-U.S. woods in many countries is an environmental disaster. Too bad the environmental organizations don't raise this flag up the flag pole. It is hard for us to do it individually, but let's try, maybe by using information from the Hardwood Forest Foundation of the NHLA.
Does it make any difference that our cabinets are higher in quality? Compared to imported cabinets, our cabinets are better products. Our construction techniques are better, hardware is better, joints are better, finishes are better, and lumber and composite board products are better. Certainly you and I both know that our cabinets are better. They will stay together and maintain their beauty for many more years. But I do think that the problem in capitalizing on this concept is that the customer probably has no way of knowing that our cabinets are better. We have to blow our own horn, often and loudly. Quality cabinets are a wise, smart investment.
Does it make any difference that our cabinets are more expensive? Certainly price is an issue for some people. But there are enough Ford Expeditions, BMWs and Mercedes that show some people do not view expense as a negative when quality accompanies the product. Certainly, there are some people who put price as the main factor when choosing cabinets, but we probably do not want these people for customers anyway. So, to be able to get a higher price for our cabinets, we will need to let the customer know about the higher quality. As previously mentioned, we are not doing a good job of this yet.
Does it make any difference that our cabinets are not handled by the big box stores? I do believe that sales from large stores are spurred by low cost (because the customer does not appreciate quality) and convenience. How convenient is it for a customer to find out about your product? Maybe we need to be more aggressive in this area; that is, perhaps we need to be more aggressive in marketing our specific products. Maybe the Internet, the biggest store of all, will help us.
Does it make any difference that our cabinets can be repaired, new doors ordered, etc. more quickly than if ordered from an overseas supplier? If this is important to the customer, you can bet that the offshore manufacturers will use U.S. distributors and offset this potential advantage.
Does it make any difference that a few years from now we can order another set of cabinets that match the first set? Or that matching hardware can be obtained? There is no question that we can indeed provide this service. Will a customer appreciate and be willing to pay for this future benefit? Probably not. Many people today do not purchase things with a 10 to 15 year future in mind. But there is a market (with more than 50 million homes that are 15 years old or older) for cabinets that match those of 10 or more years ago as Americans add first floor bedrooms and expand kitchens and bathrooms.
Does it make any difference if we offer a guarantee? Most of us certainly stand behind our product to some extent or another. Be clear on this service. Certainly we should advertise this to our customers. For example, we can guarantee that our joints will not open and will be tight for two years. Of course, we need to see a lawyer to make sure we use proper language. We also might want to date stamp our products with an ultraviolet ink. But the key is to let our customer know of this special feature, one that the competition does not have. This guarantee lets our customers know that we feel confident in what we are making.
Does it make any difference that our cabinets have more beautiful designs, finishes and hardware? Absolutely, positively, yes.
Does it make any difference that our lumber used for cabinets is insect-free? We are well aware that some cabinets imported into the U.S. have powder-post beetles. Sanitation in many countries is not adequate to prevent infestation of dry wood by this noxious insect. In the U.S., infestations are rare, especially because almost all dry kilns use temperatures over 130F, which kills the insect and its eggs.
Does is make any difference that our cabinets are finished with "lead-free" finishes? We are finding that a lot of toys are being recalled because of lead paint. Is there an advertising opportunity here?
Final admonition. I am very positive about the future of our industry. With a little effort on our part (and not the government), we can compete successfully with foreign-made cabinets. In addition to the advice given above, let me suggest that you find the customers and marketplace where you are most comfortable. Then make the cabinets better than the competition's.
Do not try to be something that you are not comfortable being. At the same time, should you do the same thing over and over again with no change in order so that you feel comfortable? No! Prepare to adapt. Look for the next opportunity; it's here now and it is spelled Made in USA.
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.